September 3, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Hannah Storm
At the end of last year, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of multiple traumas in my personal and professional life. I’d had symptoms for several years but held off seeking help because of the legacy of an abusive relationship in which I was frequently accused of being mentally ill and unable to cope. I know now this is a tactic used by abusers and the damaging effect domestic abuse can have on mental health. I was also conscious of the taboos that still exist in my industry, where journalists rarely admit vulnerability. Shame is a common symptom of PTSD. Writing helped me erase that shame.
As England went into lockdown in mid-March, I started seeing a new therapist. I was anxious about sessions via video from within the thin walls of my house. PTSD means some of my memories were wrongly stored, some of them buried so deep I could not immediately remember aspects of some things that had happened to me. To get better, I needed to process them, but I resisted my therapist’s attempts to have me relive the most traumatic experiences through the computer, and I suggested writing about them instead. He agreed.
Every week, words poured onto the page, surfacing memories buried for years, bringing technicolor to my traumas. This brought its own risks, and my therapist warned I might feel worse before I felt better. He was right. At times I was almost overwhelmed by grief or exhaustion. I kept writing, motivated by my desire to fill in the memories of my past so my brain could better process my trauma. I also tried to free-write most mornings for 15 minutes, often returning to the boxes opened in my brain. I checked back in with my therapist, told him how I was, what I was writing. I started to feel a little more in control of my memories, a little more compassion for myself.
Although my world had become so much smaller in many ways because of being locked down, it allowed my writing world to grow. Somehow, lockdown has unlocked something else through my writing.
I finally broke my silence about my PTSD in an article for the journalism website Poynter.org.
But my writing was more than a public acknowledgment of my pain. It helped me recall more clearly an evening in the Dominican Republic when I was sexually assaulted, just hours before my first visit to Haiti in 2004. I understood what had motivated damaging decisions I made later, including my descent into the long-lasting abusive relationship, and how often others had effectively coerced me into these choices.
I wrote and rewrote, lived and relived. I covered 15 years of memories, as many countries, and 30,000 words to date of what I hope will one day be a memoir, though this was far from the original motivation.
Much of my writing focuses on Haiti. Through writing I recognised how my second visit there, just months after my first, had been an attempt to make sense of the earlier sexual assault. During that second trip, I met young women and girls who had been raped, for whom there would never be justice in a place where rape was just another weapon of war. I wrote about my guilt that I had abandoned them after leaving Haiti because my freelance salary would not cover the security measures I needed to avoid being kidnapped or killed myself. I made my peace with that guilt though I will never forget those young women.
I went on to write about how I was raped a year later by someone connected with the man who assaulted me in the Dominican Republic. By reliving my memories on the page, I gained clarity about the physical and psychological backdrop to that later incident in Brazil.
I wrote about my last visit to Haiti as journalist in 2010, days after the country was devastated by a massive earthquake. I wrote about the people I met, who had endured so much. I realised why certain smells and sudden loud sounds still affect me, and I started to see themes in my writing, like how I felt often as if I was standing on unstable ground, the familiar fabric of my existence pulled from beneath my feet, or the idea of aftershocks as a series of linked traumas.
My writing also helped me remember happier times – travels through Latin America and the Caribbean: bonds forged with people and places who taught me about beauty rather than brutality. I wrote about some of my achievements too, erased by my abusers who had invoked my silence.
A couple of weeks ago, we found a buyer for our house, and I started to sort through some things stored in the loft. From a bag, I pulled out my old Brownie Guide uniform, sleeve full of badges, worn by a little girl with big dreams. Beneath it was a blue polo shirt and cream cargo pants last used in Haiti. I lifted them to my nose, knowing they could not hold the smell of death. And finally, I discovered a box of papers from family court, charting times I was forced to fight to be free. I shredded the papers, washed the clothes and my husband took them to charity. I kept the uniform to show my kids. Then I started unlocking these words.
Hannah Storm writes creative nonfiction and flash as a way of paying tribute to the people she has met and processing her experiences of travelling the world during two decades as a journalist. Her work has been published widely online and in anthologies and she has been shortlisted and placed in several awards. She lives in the UK, works as a media consultant and runs marathons, also as an antidote to trauma. She is working on a memoir as a result of the writing she has achieved during lockdown.
February 27, 2017 § 104 Comments
Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore interviews Melanie Brooks, author of the recently released Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, featuring Brooks’ conversations with Andre Dubus III, Sue William Silverman, Kyoko Mori, Richard Hoffman, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Abigail Thomas, Mark Doty, Edwidge Danticat, Jessica Handler, Richard Blanco, and others about how they tackle the most painful subjects:
MOORE: Many folks, thinking about a project like yours, would assemble an anthology, with various authors all writing essays on the theme. What inspired you to instead hop in your car and interview these writers?
BROOKS: It wasn’t so much inspiration as it was desperation. I didn’t start this project thinking I was writing a book. I started because I was paralyzed by the process of trying to tell my own hard story – so paralyzed that I wasn’t necessarily convinced I’d survive. I used the excuse of a semester project for my MFA to get the ball rolling because I knew I needed to see for myself that, despite having written through their really hard stories, all of these writers were still breathing. I needed them to look me in the eye and tell me that I’d keep breathing, too. In reading their memoirs, I’d felt a personal connection to each one of them, and I hoped for that same intimacy in our conversations. Intuitively, I recognized that in order to foster that, it would necessitate face-to-face contact when possible. I wanted these writers to know I was sincere and to trust that I’d take good care of the generous words they offered me. Then, once I started meeting up with them in really cool and diverse environments, I was hooked. I just wanted to keep doing it. When I began to transcribe the interviews, I realized how much the atmosphere of the conversations played into the conversations themselves. Writing them in narrative scene versus Q&A just felt right and it gave a natural shape to the project that I knew I wanted to build on when I understood it was becoming a book.
MOORE: Your book is as much about writing and memory as it is about writing and trauma. Would you agree with that?
BROOKS: Absolutely. Whether our past is traumatic or not, writing about it still requires the writer to re-enter moments of lived experience and uncover the stories those moments hold. Andre Dubus III points out in our interview that “the opposite of the word remember is not forget, it’s dismember. Chop, chop, chop. Remember means to put back together again.” Putting our stories back together is the basic challenge of memoir writing. We have to pull out the memories and hold them close to the light so that we can see what’s really present in those moments. That close examination can expose stories we didn’t know we had and can also cause us to completely reevaluate the way we’ve always told ourselves the stories. There’s an underlying responsibility to be as true to those stories as we can, even though memory is, by nature, subjective. Carrying that burden of responsibility can feel lonely at times. I wanted to hear about those lonely treks into memory from each one of these authors because then I might feel less lonely on my own trek.
MOORE: What surprised you in the answers you received?
BROOKS: I honestly believed at the beginning of my memoir journey that writing my story would enable me to let it go. Leave it behind me somewhere. I was secretly hoping these writers would confirm this belief. They didn’t. Again and again, I heard that writing about the trauma doesn’t erase the trauma. Marianne Leone confronted my misconception head on: “I think what you’re hoping I’m going to tell you is that I had this great pain and that writing this book took the great pain away. I wish I could tell you that there’s a lessening of the pain. It’s just different.” Mark Doty’s words reiterated her perspective. “A rupture in your life of that kind remains a hole, a tear. Despite the fact that it doesn’t repair, doesn’t make the rupture in your life go away, it’s a very satisfying thing to give shape to your story. To concretize it. To have something you can give people and say, ‘I made this. This stands for me.’” And Richard Hoffman said, “You can never entirely redeem the experience. You can’t make it not hurt anymore. But you can make it beautiful enough so that there’s something to balance it in the other scale.” I listened to them, and I began to understand that my story is not something I can let go. It’s no longer something I even want to let go. I can, though, lighten the burden so it’s not quite so heavy to carry and maybe carry it differently. Putting its weight into words on the page is helping me to do that.
MOORE: What advice do you, or the writers you interview in Writing Hard Stories, have for beginning writers who feel the trauma in their lives is too hard to write, too impossible to explain, or too difficult to explore?
BROOKS: First, be kind to yourselves. It is hard to write about the trauma in our lives. It does often feel impossible to explain or too difficult to explore. So, afford yourselves some grace when those feelings surface and try not to minimize them. But also take heart, as I did, from the insights of others who have journeyed through their stories (and cried and felt paralyzed and often side-swiped by grief) and have made it to the other side. As Kyoko Mori says, “These things already happened.” We are survivors already because we are here now and the trauma is somewhere behind us. Find strength in that reality to take that first step into writing your stories. And, as Abigail Thomas told me when we spoke, “Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.”
Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts, and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, the Recollectors, the Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Her almost-completed memoir explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s learning to understand that impact.